It’s probably not a coincidence that three of this year’s best movies—Gravity, Captain Phillips, and now All Is Lost—revolve around people stuck in situations that are, ah… less than ideal. Lost in space! Abducted by pirates! Marooned at sea! Like Captain Phillips and Gravity, All Is Lost is about confronting one’s own death; unlike those films, All Is Lost works with a bare-knuckled, blue-collar unflashiness. Writer/director J.C. Chandor sets a few pieces in motion, then watches as everything falls apart.
Chandor took a similar approach with his first film, 2011’s excellent financial thriller Margin Call. But while Margin Call was crammed with A-list actors who relished chewing through Chandor’s dialogue, the nearly wordless All Is Lost focuses, with exhausting intensity, on a single man. (In the closing credits, he’s listed only as “Our Man.” He’s played by Robert Redford—wrinkled, presumably, from both years and water.) When a yacht he’s sailing hits a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean, water rushes into his cabin with startling speed; everything that follows charts his attempts to stay alive. We’re only given a few hints about who he is: He’s rich (that’s a nice boat); he’s alone, in more ways than one; and when it comes to sailing, he’s hardly an expert, though he seems to be, at least, competent. Whether competence will be enough, Redford’s weary, determined face tells us, is profoundly doubtful.
There’s a lot to be impressed by in All Is Lost—mainly Redford’s fantastic performance and the fact Chandor seems just as comfortable with Jack London–esque survival as with Margin Call’s wolves of Wall Street. Grim and quiet and melancholy, All Is Lost is tough and relentless—but perhaps the most impressive thing about it is that Chandor and Redford make this story as exciting and as touching as it is harrowing.